When Spike Lee made “Do The Right Thing” in 1989, he was viewed as a sharp social commentator who examined conflicts and lives of working class and poor blacks in the New York. It was a movie that smoked with rage at the way blacks and whites in New York’s Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn related to one another. The movie sparked a lot of discussion about race relations in the late-’80s, and is regarded as a landmark film for its time.
Flash forward 25 years later, and here comes “Dear White People” — a film that takes place at a fictional ivy league college where the state of race-relations is explored in a different social class than “Do The Right Thing.” Comparisons will be made (I’m sure they already have) between Spike Lee and Justin Simien — the writer and director of “Dear White People” — and some of the comparisons are apt. It seems that in the last 25 years, the relationships between whites and blacks are still tense and brimming with rage. Whites tend to think in post-racial terms that, ironically, gives them a license to say and act in a very racist ways. Blacks continue to shake their heads at whites who just don’t get it, or do get it when it comes to racism, but don’t care. While “Do The Right Thing” had a more hopeless ending, “Dear White People” is more hopeful.
The plot of “Dear White People” is pretty simple, but the circumstances and stories to the lead up to the big conflict are a bit more complex. The movie begins with the election of Samantha White to one of the black residence halls (a position held by her ex-boyfriend) that sparks a race and culture war on campus as Samantha starts to blocks whites from eating or even entering the residence hall. Her rise as a more militant leader is compounded by her radio show where she plays music and tells white people about some of their social faux pas and overtly racist attitudes. Samantha is also a character who has issues with her own family background. Her father is white, has a heart condition, and she’s having trouble showing feelings for him because as a little girl, she was keenly aware of the color difference between the two of them, and had trouble dealing with it. Shunning her “white side” and, at times, her white boyfriend, she creates a persona of a very strident black woman. She’s smart, knows what drives people’s motivations, and likes to think of herself as a radical — but clearly feels like a hypocrite because of her loving feelings for her father and boyfriend. There are other players in this drama that include a gay black freshman who can’t relate to black people (or, it seems, gay people), another woman who wants to be a reality TV star, but wants to do so by being a bit of a princess — and downplaying her blackness. She finds that interest in her rises the more she plays up conflicts between whites and black by doing her own kind of Dear White People on her vlog.
“Do The Right Thing” had more to do with the preservation of cultural space among working class and poor blacks. “Dear White People” is about mobility, power, and prestige among that hothouse of over-achievement: the ivy league. When future upper middle class and one percenters are in competition with one another, there’s a lot of angling for opportunities for resume building. The struggles are very economic, but those economic struggles are bound up in race, and that’s where the real issue of racism comes in. No matter how talented and gifted blacks are, many keep losing economic ground and prime opportunities due to white privilege of connections, tradition, and legacy.
Race, racism, and racial conflict is certainly a powerful topic, but one thing that has changed in the last 25 years is that questions of race in the United States is not confined to the dyad of blacks and whites. The last 25 years since “Do The Right Thing” was made has seen a marked increase in Latinos and Asians in the United States — and especially on college campuses. “Dear White People” does touch on this, but only in a slight way. And that’s a shame because in California (which is where I live), there’s a lot of discussion of the lack of diversity in tech companies (where a number of the characters in “Dear White People” could be headed to). Now, there are many Asian Indian men in tech. Exactly when Asian Indian men stopped being a minority group in tech probably occurred in the last 10 years. However, while these guys may have majority status in the tech sector, once they leave work, they are back as minorities in the larger culture. The same goes for people who are have Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, or even Filipino roots. They may be over-represented in certain sectors of the economy, in some schools, or even parts of some metro areas, but their experience with racial intolerance, their own cliquishness, and how blacks perceive these groups is ripe for exploration. However, that’s a topic for another movie. But Justin Simien certainly had the opportunity to do so, and it’s unfortunate that he wasn’t able to weave some of those relationships into his film because to do so would have really made his movie much more revolutionary.